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The Jewish Ethicist: Showing Racism the Door

The Jewish Ethicist: Showing Racism the Door

Should I fire a racist worker?


Q. Should I fire an employee who continually makes offensive racist comments?

A. Without question, there's no place in the enlightened workplace for racism or other offensive behavior. Indeed, in many countries the employer has a legal responsibility to make sure that the workplace is free of these baneful phenomena, so that all workers are free to work in a supportive environment.

However, firing the offending employee should not be the first line of action. Rather, we should first strive to encourage this worker to amend his behavior and, if possible, his views. A variety of insights from Jewish tradition lend support to this approach.

The Torah commands, "Don't hate your brother in your heart; surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him" (Lev. 19:17). When someone is acting improperly, we shouldn't write him off and assume he is incorrigible; we should gently explain to him how his acts offend. The great Medieval commentator Nachmanides explains further that we should focus on how we personally are affected by his acts: "Don't hate your brother in your heart when he acts against your desires; rather, reprove him: 'Why did you do that to me?'" Modern psychology confirms Nachmanides insight; people are far more offended by being told they acted against some principle of ethical behavior than they are by being informed that someone individually was hurt by them.

So a good place to begin would be to take this worker aside and tell him in a non-judgmental fashion that his comments make some other workers feel uncomfortable, and that the work environment would be improved if he would be more careful with his speech. If his racist comments are against the law, it would certainly be appropriate to explain that the employer has a legal responsibility to keep such comments out of the workplace; this too is ultimately non-judgmental, since the criteria are objective and not personal.

If this approach is ineffective, a summary dismissal is still not called for. But it is appropriate to "read the riot act". Inform the worker that continuing his offensive behavior will lead to dismissal. This is appropriate on the professional level because in Jewish law employees should not be dismissed without being given a warning and a chance to improve their performance. (1) It is also appropriate on the personal level. Even though the worker is now only changing his actions because of external pressure, Jewish tradition affirms the value of a change in behavior even when it is not accompanied by a change in character. In Judaism the emphasis is always on the practical act; it is noteworthy that Jewish communities never developed a "catechism" or unified, obligatory statement of belief and ideology. Of course there are certain basic Orthodox beliefs, and great scholars such as Maimonides have elaborated them; but membership in the community was never based on expressions of belief but rather on acceptance of religious norms.

If all of these means are ineffective, then you may have no recourse but to fire the worker. You may even have a legal obligation to do so. No worker has the right to make his fellow employees miserable and to hurt their feelings.

The Talmud tells us that the great scholar Rabbi Meir was constantly harassed by ruffians in his neighborhood. He was thinking of protecting himself by praying that harm should befall them. His wife, Bruria, reproved him, citing the verse from Psalms: "Sins will pass from the earth, and the wicked will be no more". (Psalms 104:35.) The verse begins by stating that sins, rather than sinners, will pass from the earth; this is our responsibility. Once the sins pass, the wicked are no more - not because they have come to harm, but because they are no longer truly wicked. Rather, we should do everything we can to improve their behavior. (2)

(1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 306:8. (2) Berakhot 10a.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

August 7, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Jacqueline, August 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Concern about anti-Semitism on the Internet

While recently embarking on a journey tracing my roots, I learned I have Jewish on both my mother and father's sides. Since I never knew my father, tracing my roots is important to me. In seeking information about Jews in Serbia (my father's country), I came accross what initially appeared to be a webring that would be conducive to my research. I was dismayed after entering it that it was from a group called Stormfront, a neo-Nazi group feeding mental and spiritual poison to Serbs and Serb-Americans seeking support organizations for the victims of the last Balkan Wars. One of the bloggers claimed the Holocaust never happened. There are alot of Serbs who were victims in the last Yugoslav wars who may be very vulnerable to subscribe to this anti-Semetic idealogy and cause Jewish persons in the Balkans to become scapegoated in another "ethnic cleansing", just as what happened in Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia in WW-II. As it is, too many younger people do not know the full gravity of the Holocaust and many question whether it really occurred, even though there is no doubt that the Holocaust really occurred - and can occurr again as long as anti-Semitism flourishes and is spread in areas of war-torn regions and poverty. Jewish people have always been unjustly scapegoated. The poverty in Germany from the Versailles Treaty in WW I led to the anti-Semitism and nationalist Nazi movement whereby the Holocaust and WW II were the results. Stormfront is now preying on angry, impoverished disposessed Serbs - with anti-Semetic propoganda. They say that the United States, an ally of Israel, hence a Zionist agenda, is responsible for the current suffering of innocent Serbs. They use Internet weblogs to do it. While freedom of speech is an inherant right, those rights come with responsibilities - namely you cannot yell "fire" in a crowded movie theater. Jews and non-Jews who abhor the atrocities of the Holocaust must work together to ensure the Holocaust NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN! Lest any of us ever forgets... Many racist or anti-Semites in the workplace may have gotten their ideas from groups such as Stormfront while surfing the net on their own time. But it should never be forgotten that these ideaologies are thoughts and beliefs than kill.

(2) Matthew, August 14, 2004 12:00 AM

and i am turn am enamored by al, who always seems to have a refreshing take on things

(1) al puglisi, August 12, 2004 12:00 AM


What is said at the end of the piece is one of the reasons that I, an ex Christian, am so enamored of Judaism...because it emphasizes behavior over thought. While changes in character are most desirable, and in fact, probably a goal we all need to attain, it is the behavior that matters.
That being said, of course the person should be fired.If for no other reason than the emplopyer will bear the brunt of liability for the offending employee's actions. This aside from the fact that it is our responsibility to protect our employees from the offensiveness of other employees.

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